It is no secret that the Trump administration is pushing to vastly expand offshore oil and gas drilling. In early January Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced a new five-year plan for offshore leasing that would potentially open up more than 90 percent of federal coastal waters to energy development and include the largest number of lease sales in the program’s history. From Alaska’s Chukchi Sea and the rugged shores of the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Coast, nothing was off the table. Zinke described it as one more step on the path to “achieving American Energy Dominance.”
Less attention has been paid to the Interior Department’s simultaneous efforts to loosen regulations governing offshore drilling, jeopardizing safety precautions put into place after BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. One proposal under consideration would recombine the two bureaus responsible for managing offshore development and for enforcing environmental and safety regulations, respectively. The Obama administration separated those bureaus after the Deepwater blowout in order to eliminate conflicts of interest and strengthen industry oversight; recombining them was viewed as one way to reduce “burdens” on the energy industry, a Trump-administration priority. The possibility of merging the bureaus was first raised in early 2017 and, according to current and former DOI employees, was favored by Secretary Zinke, even before an analysis had been drafted. In February, Zinke said a final decision would be made in the next 90 days.
Prior to the BP oil spill in 2010, the same office that collected revenues from the offshore industry was also responsible for making sure those companies followed environmental rules.